4 Red Flags That You’re Headed for Burnout


Have things gotten so bad lately that you fantasize skipping the right turn into the office parking lot and just driving somewhere far away? That’s not just stress. That’s burnout.

In his book Transforming Burnout, Alan Shelton, M.D., medical director at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority and family practitioner, describes his own descent into complete and total burnout, when he lost every last shred of curiosity and compassion for his work and his patients, and could barely get out of bed in the morning.

Stress is a major contributing factor to burnout, which Shelton describes as “a loss of energy for one’s work or profession…accompanied by a sense of being used up…depleted.” He notes that burnout has become especially prevalent among those in the helping or service professions—which, as a doctor, he knows well. (As does Pauline Chen, M.D., who wrote this piece in the Times recently on how mindfulness helped ease her case of doctor burnout.)

Rather than waiting to you hit rock bottom, it’s worth paying close attention to the signs you’re headed for burnout.

1.     You can’t strike a balance.
First, realize that the idea that you should be in perfect balance is unrealistic and undesirable. I prefer to use the term “balance” as a verb, not a noun, something you continue to do to manage the ups and downs of your life. At meQuilibrium, we refer to these as “lifts” (the things that buffer you) and “drags” (those that make your stress worse).  The goal isn’t to eliminate the drags, but to bolster them.

TRY THIS: Seek out lifts.  When you feel yourself being dragged down by obligations and worry, you haven’t “failed” at balance—you just need to counter the drags with more lifts. Talk with a friend (instead of canceling to do more work). Go for a long walk at lunch instead of sitting and staring at the screen. Spend a little more quality time with your partner before rushing off to reply to emails after dinner. Watch dopey cat videos until you laugh at something—anything.

2.     You’re angry. Often.
What is your signature emotion these days? If it’s irritated, frustrated, anxious, or angry, then you have reason to be concerned. While at first you think that you’re only that way because everyone else is (fill in the blank!), the fact is, your emotional response says more about you than them. And running hot that long can take its toll—on your mood of course, but also your health and stress levels. (Read more on how to break your anger habit.)

TRY THIS: Do a gut check.
Next time you feel a negative emotion boiling up and over like an unwatched pot, check yourself: What caused this? Was it overdue project? Or the idea that you don’t have the resources you need? Was it the comment from your spouse? Or do you feel unsupported by him? Emotions don’t just arise on their own without forewarning—they are more often than not triggered by a thought. Trace that thought to its roots and you expose the fear—which will loosen its grip on you.  (Learn more about the connection between thinking and stress.)

3.     You’re fighting—with everyone. Or worse: You’ve stopped fighting.
Conflict is both a contributor to stress and the cause of it. Where are you locked in conflict? Maybe you’re not throwing things, but it’s there—the brusque or exasperated tone of emails, simple miscommunications arousing defenses. Fighting is the outgrowth of a negative emotion (see above), and not only will it derail your day, but also creates an ever-widening rift when left unaddressed. What you don’t want to do is get to the point where you have totally and completely withdrawn, a sure sign of burnout.

TRY THIS: Stay connected.
If you’re fighting, believe it or not, it’s a good thing—far better than when you’re not fighting anymore. That dead zone of total disconnection can be devastating, so instead of making jabs and furthering the friction, try to fight productively: Don’t push back defensively, but invite and encourage communication about the issues at hand. In order for this to work, you must not out to prove the other wrong, but open to hearing where you’ve fallen short, too.

4.     You’re bone tired and uninspired.
This is the hallmark of burnout behavior—and you can see it coming a mile away. You hit the snooze button six times. Your days seem flat and airless. You’re just bone tired and can’t remember being excited by anything. The very thing you’re passionate about—whether it’s your work, your kids, your hobby—ceases to stir you.

In his recent and very clever Wall St. Journal essay, Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in talking about how failing is the only sure way to succeed, notes that it became clear he was stressed and frustrated because the passion evaporated.

He writes,

“For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed.”

And while he’s not talking about burnout, it’s worth noting when you feel the passion draining from you. Whether or not that means you made the “right” decision or not doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s worth noting when your passion becomes your pain and it starts draining, instead of boosting, your energy.

TRY THIS: Don’t just sleep; rest.
While you need sleep to recuperate, you also need rest, meaning, fully conscious, not passed out. Depending on how bad things have gotten, you may need a mini leave of absence to restore yourself, and you do that by reconnecting to what matters most, by giving yourself quiet, away from the mind-numbing chaos and distractions. Of course if you’re not able to function normally (get up, go about a regular day), consult your doctor. But recognize that you are capable of revitalizing and returning to your normal, energetic self. But you do it by taking your foot off the gas, not pushing harder.